Some people say it is playing 18 holes of golf, others say spending the day in a blind when the geese aren’t flying. But for me it is a quiet sail on a warm day across a long stretch of water barely ruffled by the wind that makes two people open up to one another and tell each other things they would never say in any other setting.
One of these sails occurred with my father who passed more than twenty years ago. He was neither a boater nor someone who liked the water. So, one dry summer late in August when the sea nettles were as thick as Jello in the Bay’s shallows, he said to my astonishment that he wanted to do the Crab Alley to Saint Michaels run I had been talking about around the office.
Our boat then was a 16 foot Hobie catamaran. This particular trip started at the public landing on Crab Alley Creek on Kent Island, out Crab Alley Bay, across the Eastern Bay and up the Miles River to St. Michaels for lunch at its iconic restaurant, the Crab Claw, next door to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. If the winds hold up in the afternoon, a Hobie can sail the twelve miles back to the public landing by five in the afternoon which we were always able to do.
At the time of the sail, my father and I were practicing law together, something we did for fifteen years in a classic father-son business relationship. Still years away from retirement, he was enjoying all that he had accomplished. He couldn’t imagine doing anything else but come to the office each day to make sure everything was being done the way he wanted it. I, on the other hand, was at the beginning of my career and, with the supreme confidence of youthful denseness, wanted to change most everything. We were in the heated argument stage, each trying to convince the other of the rightness of his position through intense force of will, and each exasperated and profoundly disturbed by the shortsightedness of the other.
This relationship is described frequently in management journals, my favorite being a book by Thomas Watson, Jr. In Father, Son & Company, he writes about IBM and his travails with his father who founded the organization. Our small firm was hardly an IBM, but there were distinct similarities in the way the Watson and McGuiness males treated one another.
Tom Junior fought day in and day out with his father. He thought the future of computers was in transistors. His father felt just as strongly that the punch card would continue to be the key to success. Since the 1930’s, it had made IBM one of the largest and most successful organizations in the world. Just because it was the Fifties, there was no need to change something that had been so reliable and that had created so much wealth.
There is a picture of these two titans shaking hands on the day Tom Senior retired and handed the reins of his beloved company to this hothead who didn’t have the maturity to leave well enough alone and would no doubt go on to ruin it. A man who has only a few months to live, Senior has a look of resignation, knowing full well this kid is going to change everything that he had worked so hard to build.
When my father and I had our sail that quiet day in August, we were still five years away from the passing of the mantle, a process that would begin three years later at a fateful annual meeting of one of our association clients.
At that time, he was the president of an industry trade association, and I was the number two. A few months before that meeting, this association had been involved in defeating a major piece of legislation in Congress that had a provision in it our members found abhorrent. Our involvement in the debate had resurrected a long running argument about the organization’s appropriate public profile. He prided himself on keeping things low key to avoid as much controversy as possible. The last thing he wanted, particularly at this point in his career, was the organization to be attacked publicly by anyone for any reason.
I, on the other hand, thought a political organization could be more effective by making one’s presence known and that a bit of controversy, in addition to making life interesting, was useful in drawing attention to one’s arguments. At the same time, I was being told by our members that they were tired of hearing policymakers at our meetings who mirrored their own views. They wanted the discussions broadened and new perspectives brought in. So, to add a little spice to this session, I had invited the prime sponsor of the legislation we had helped defeat to be a part of our panel of Congressional speakers. Much to everyone’s surprise, he accepted.
On a Friday afternoon in Williamsburg, Virginia, before an audience of senior corporate executives, the congressman opened his presentation by saying that the reason he had accepted the invitation was that an important message needed to be delivered. “Make no mistake about it,” he solemnly intoned, “your organization was primarily responsible for the defeat of my bill.”
No one likes to tell someone else their true feelings about something the other holds dear, and this penchant is pronounced when people deal one-on-one with powerful politicians. Members of Congress are routinely lobbied by sycophantic business representatives who tell them that the legislation they are sponsoring is wonderful and that they are very sorry that their retrograde, staff driven, out of control business associations (to whom they faithfully pay their dues and serve on their boards) are giving them such a hard time.
Some politicians actually believe that companies are grateful to policymakers who saddle them with enormous legal liability. Perhaps, for that reason, the congressman expected that his charge against us, that we defeated a bill that he had written, would so shock the membership that they would immediately launch impeachment proceedings against my father and me. This is absolutely great, I thought. Here we are being given credit for something that few groups could ever hope to accomplish—primary responsibility for an action taken by Congress—and not only that, the sponsor of the bill was the one presenting the award.
But the glow quickly faded. The Congressman shifted from an attack on the association to an attack on the executives sitting in the room who were headquartered in his home state, many of whom he knew personally. “What are you doing in this room,” he would say, calling out each one by name. “I’m sure you’re not contributing to an organization like this.”
Exhausting that pool, he then turned to me, accusing me of unethical conduct and intoning that my license to practice law should be revoked. What had been exhilarating was now headed into the abyss. The audience knew full well that it was the pot calling the kettle black, but his repeated personal attacks were beginning to raise questions as to whether there wasn’t at least some truth in what he was saying.
The congressman harangued the group like an instructor in a reeducation camp, repeatedly referring to a fact sheet that I had developed on blank paper describing various aspects of the bill. One of its points had been picked up by the legislation’s opponents during the House floor debate and used as the principal argument against it. This blank format was in keeping with my father’s no identity, low profile approach which the two of us had battled over for years. I couldn’t believe sinister motives were now being assigned to my use of it. Even more puzzling was the fact that the congressman said repeatedly that the language I had used in the fact sheet was an egregious misrepresentation of his bill.
This harangue went on for 45 of the most painful minutes of my life. Squirming in their chairs, no one was willing to look in my direction. My father was pacing back and forth in the back of the room muttering violently to himself, his worst fears realized.
Earlier that day, I had proudly recounted our accomplishments to these very same people, and they had seemed so very, very appreciative of what we had done. From the high of that morning, I was now looking at the gates of hell. Growing up in Washington, DC, I had watched the oft repeated ritual of those in the wrong place at the wrong time being dismembered for misdeeds that weren’t sins at all, and now I couldn’t believe that it was happening to me, right in front of the very people with whom I wanted to build my career.
Eventually, it hit me that I was completely on my own. No one was going to come to my rescue, not my father, not the moderator who at this point was looking for a way to slide off the riser, nor any of those people who usually stand up in a group setting like this to make long-winded points.
With nothing left to lose, I rose from my chair in the back of the room and moved rapidly to the dais, loudly interrupting the congressman on my way forward, saying that it was time to bring a little bit of truth, common sense, and decency into this discussion. Yes, this sounds remarkably lame in the retelling, but it shocked the room and caused the congressman to freeze momentarily in disbelief at my indiscretion.
Once on the stage, I yanked the fact sheet out of his hand, reading aloud the passage he found so offensive. “Yes, I wrote that. Yes, I gave it to everyone I could in Congress. But what you’ve neglected to tell the audience, Mr. Chairman, is that there are quotation marks at the beginning and end of the sentence you find so egregious. The reason for those quotation marks is that this sentence comes directly from your bill. You wrote those words, Mr. Chairman, and if those words were the cause of your bill being defeated, then you have no one to blame but yourself.”
With that I shoved the fact sheet back into his hands, turned my back to him and walked to my seat, very slowly. As I did, I could feel the mood of the room swing fiercely to my side. People pounded their fists. Tables were slapped. I was patted on my arms, back and legs as I worked down the row back to my seat. I was Rocky. I wanted to bow in four directions and drink in the cheers.
The Congressman tried to continue his hectoring for a few more minutes, but his colleagues on the panel had grown weary of his act and tugged on his sleeve. It was over, and they soon left the room.
After the meeting had recessed for the day, I knocked on the door of my parents’ room in the hotel. My mother let me in without, uncharacteristically, saying a word, just nodding in my father’s direction.
He was slumped in a heavy chair that he had turned to the resort’s elegant small window. Staring out at the peaceful golf course, the geese walking across the lawn, and the trees just beginning to bud, he looked as if the world had crashed in around him. The bill would become law without the offending provision, but the association’s name would be on everything we touched. Our profile had been raised permanently, and there were members of Congress who would try to squash us whenever they got the opportunity.
As I stood there beside him, he wouldn’t look at me or even acknowledge my presence. I told the back of his head not to worry, the whole thing had worked out fine and that for once no one had fallen asleep during the afternoon meeting. He turned and glared at me, and said, acid dripping, “You just don’t get it, do you?”
But that was all to come. By some unspoken agreement that August day in 1982, all the usual mind games we played on each other had been suspended.
As we glided out of Crab Alley Bay, he sat looking across the water towards the narrow strip of trees in the distance that marks Tilghman Point at the mouth of the Miles River. Instead of his usual golf hat from an expensive resort, he was wearing a black billed Winchester Rifles cap that he’d bought at a convenience store where we had stopped for ice that morning. He’d never owned a gun in his life.
We talked about our experiences growing up and what had happened to relatives and people we knew. As the morning wore on, we started thinking about those points you reach in life when the fog lifts. It reveals an attractive channel, and turning towards it, an irreversible journey begins taking you thousands of miles in a direction you had never anticipated. Had the fog not lifted just at that moment, you would have chosen another course with an altogether different set of experiences. We had never talked like this before.
When we got to St. Michaels, we tacked the Hobie through the harbor in the light wind to the dingy dock at the Maritime Museum and then walked over to the picnic tables on the Crab Claw’s deck. It was a day that comes as summer is ending, when the sky is less intense, the green leaves are losing their luster, and the crickets trill their high register symphony.
We watched a small seaplane land on the Miles and taxi towards the Crab Claw as we ate. The pilot shut down its engine as he neared us, passed a long wooden oar through a side window, and paddled the last few feet to tie up directly in front of our table. We smiled at each other and shook our heads, thinking how foreign this pleasant place was to the universe we normally inhabited.
At the time I was stumbling my way through a book Nigel Calder wrote called Einstein’s Universe. It said on the dust jacket, “Relativity Made Plain” which is a bit of a reach. As part of his discussion of the theories Einstein formulated replacing Newtonian concepts of gravity with ones involving time and space, he provides a description of how two bodies influence one another.
Moons and planets are falling freely, travelling as straight as they can through curved space. A massive body, he says, “distorts time and space around it and those distortions guide the movements of other objects in its vicinity.” He goes on to explain that a massive body bends space to such an extent that a smaller object falling freely at the right speed goes right around the massive body and back to its starting point.
Calder’s explanation summed up our relationship at the time. Two bodies falling freely in space, but my father’s being so massive that I was trapped in his orbit. He would move inexorably forward, while I could only move through the space that curved around him.
On that day in August as I picked through a pile of steamed crabs and he ordered a second helping of crab cakes, relativity changed. We were both falling freely, neither one curving the other’s space. At least that’s how I felt. Maybe it was just because he was on my boat going where I wanted to go and only I knew how to sail it. He was riding in my car, and I would be driving him home. If he didn’t like what I was doing, he would have to call my mother, and she was not going to drive all the way to the Eastern Shore to pick him up. So maybe, for a change, he was having to orbit around me just to survive the day. Except that he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself and always spoke afterwards about what an enjoyable day it was. In any event, it was the first time in my life of 35 years that I saw my father as neither a parent, an employer, nor someone in my way, but just another confused human being grappling with life.
A few days after we returned to the office, the relationship reverted to its normal state. Five years later, the mantle was passed, albeit reluctantly. And one August afternoon fourteen years later as he sat in the family room of our house, the two of us looked directly at one another, staring into each other’s eyes for a long time, saying no words because we didn’t need to. A feeling was being exchanged that he did not have long to live and that he wanted to make his peace with me and I with him. It would not be until the following August that I would watch those eyes burn brightly for a brief moment as he saw a new course that would take him forever in a new direction, and then dim as he took it.
Today, I live in St. Michaels on that same harbor, and I can see the roof of the Crab Claw from our home. Now and then when the intensity of the August heat breaks, I like to sit on our deck and imagine the Hobie with its two figures aboard working its way over to the dingy dock where we had tied up so long ago, and then try to bring back that feeling. In all our years together, it was one of the few times neither of us wanted anything from the other. For a brief moment in time and space, we were just two guys, at peace.
Jeff McGuiness was the senior partner of a public policy law firm based in Washington, DC, and founder of HR Policy Association. A fine arts major in college who served as a photographer in the Air Force during the Vietnam War Era, he has picked up where he left off 50 years ago with Bay Photographic Works. He lives in St. Michaels, MD.
Letters to Editor
Jane Ellet Hukill says
Thank you for such a beautiful and reflective story about a father and son. I too have enjoyed that beautiful trip from Kent Narrows to St. Michaels with family through our generations. Something about the movement through those beautiful waters opens memories and often understanding about where we are and where we are really going in life.
Patti Diamond says
Awesome story…one to treasure!